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WHEN BUYING A NEW HERDSIRE, ALWAYS CHECK OUT HIS MAMA

by: Heather Smith Thomas

When selecting a new bull, the stockman or seedstock producer can utilize information on weaning weights, yearling weights, birth weights, yearling hip height, milk EPD's, etc. Much progress has been made in charting the genetics of beef production; there's lots of data to help choose a bull that will sire growthy calves.

Perhaps even more important, however, in breeding profitable cattle, is improvement of the cow herd. Pounds of calf, to sell, or fast-growing young bulls that will sire heavy calves, are often the goal, but in some ways not as important as the heifers. To be successful, you need fertile, long lived productive cows that raise a big calf while still breeding back on time to calve year after year – cows that give peak performance on what feed the ranch produces. The cow herd is your future.     

If you are raising heifers, the most important choice you make when buying a new bull is selecting a good heifer sire. The bull makes a lasting contribution to the herd (good or bad), since the quickest way to change the genetics of a herd is through sire selection. You want that contribution to be beneficial to your purposes, moving your heifers in the best direction to meet the goals of your breeding program. Seedstock producers are finding that maternal qualities are as important to most of their bull buyers as weaning and yearling weight, and some of these maternal qualities cannot be measured with EPD's. EPD's do not measure some of the most important traits you need to evaluate when selecting breeding stock things like conformation, fertility, disposition, udder shape and teat size, for instance.

RESEARCH HIS BACKGROUND - Clyde Nelson, a seedstock producer from Salmon, Idaho, says that the first thing he does when evaluating a bull is to check out his background. "You've got to evaluate at least three generations in the pedigree; his ancestors need to be the kind of cattle that you want, in order to get any consistency in his calves, and you really need to go back and double check the female side of his pedigree in those three generations to make sure they are the right kind of cows. We try to look at everything visually, not just on paper, because a lot of the things that are important to us you can't see on paper like disposition, udders, and structural soundness. There are things you need to actually see. The paper records are fine we certainly look at those too – but on any bull we use (whether to produce sons or daughters) we like to see the individuals (ancestors and offspring) if we can."

He says, "If it's a young bull, we do a pedigree search and, go back and see as many ancestors as we can, and half sibs a generation or two back. Even though the numbers are becoming a real sales tool, it's just as important to go search out some of those other things like disposition that the numbers don't, tell you."

MILKING ABILITY - A mistake some stockmen make in using EPD's is selecting for extremes, thinking one bull is better than another because his EPD for that trait is higher (or lower). There are no "good" or "bad" EPD's, however. It all depends on what you are selecting for in your particular herd. A bull with a negative EPD value for milking ability, for instance, is only "bad" if your herd needs increased milking ability. If you already have heavy milking cows or marginal pasture conditions where heavy milking cows may not get enough nutrition to milk well and still keep up their own body condition, a negative EPD may be just what you need in order to continue raising cattle in a profitable manner.

The most desirable milk EPD in a sire will vary from breeder to breeder, depending on the herd's current milk level and the ranch's feed resources and the direction the cow herd should be moved genetically. The breeder must think in terms of optimum levels rather than maximum; a beef producer must have a production level (calf size and growth rate) to fit the ranch environment and management conditions. Otherwise you get problems with increased birth weights and calving difficulty, lower calf crop percent and decreased fertility, increased cow size and higher maintenance costs, and decreased rather than increased profits. The seedstock producer has a responsibility to customers since the commercial cattleman needs bulls that sire efficient cattle - not just fast-growing steers, but also replacement heifers that will work profitably under a variety of conditions without pampering.

Rodger Swanson, a breeder near Tendoy, Idaho, feels some herds have too much milk production. "You can get this trait too high, and have heifers that are giving so much milk they are harder to keep weight on, and slower to breed back," he says. "Many good bulls have high milk EPD's and even though everything else is really good about them, this is a factor that sometimes needs to be considered - especially if you have a ranch situation where cows have to work hard, like on range pastures." He feels a breeder needs to strike a balance, and tailor the cow herd to fit the situation and that of his customers if selling seedstock. "You want easy fleshing cattle, and the bull has a big influence on this," he says. Often the highest milking cows are harder to keep weight on."

BIRTHWEIGHT -- Swanson wants moderate birthweight when choosing a herdsire. "Even though a lot of people might think I'm doing this just so I can sell bulls to use on heifers), that's not the reason. If you have a sire with a big birthweight, his daughters will have big calves themselves and can have trouble calving, even if they are big heifers. For instance, the biggest heifer I calved out last year was the one I had to help. She had a big moose of a calf. The calf was sired by an easy calving bull with moderate birth weight and EPD, and you'd think she shouldn't have had trouble like that except that her genetics made a big calf."

His advice is to go easy on birthweight. The heifer inherits her own birthweight from her sire and dam, and if she comes from family lines with heavy birthweights, she may have trouble having her first calf, even if you breed her to an easy calving bull. If she had a heavy birthweight herself and inherited this genetic trait, her calf may be large and hard to be born. Size at birth is influenced just as much by the female side as by the "easy calving bull" you bred her to. Many ranchers who use light birthweight bulls on first calf heifers can still have calving problems if the heifers themselves were produced from heavy birthweight sires. A light to moderate birthweight sire is best for producing good daughters that calve easily.

You want genetics that produce light birthweight calves that then grow swiftly. Rod always tries to couple low or moderate birthweight with fast growth. "A minus birthweight scares a lot of people because this type of bull may have daughters that mature too small; they don't grow fast enough to catch up and they'll be hard calvers just because they don't have the pelvic area. But one of the best bulls I use has a very minus birthweight and also a lot of growth, so I don't have a problem with him."

All too often a heavy birthweight and high yearling weight go together, because this is what many breeders have selected for and perpetuated over the years. You also tend to see light birthweight correlated with light weaning and yearling weights. You have to look a little harder to find cattle that combine light birthweight with fast growth and good weaning weight. There are some out there if you look for them and they are often moderate size. Cattle that can combine calving ease and gainability are much more profitable to the cow calf rancher than heavy birthweight cattle with higher risk for death losses and more labor intensive calving. Swanson wants bulls that mature quickly, even if they don't have a really high yearling weight. "I want bulls that have a high rate of growth, but not a huge mature size," he says.

Clyde Nelson also looks for calving ease but feels that the way the calf is made (whether blocky or streamlined) is more important than actual birthweight. "If a calf is made right, he will be born easily, even if he's big though there is a limit to what you want on size."

FRAME SIZE - "I select for moderate frame size," says Swanson. "Size is another thing that can get you into a wreck if you have great big bulls; these cattle are too high in their maintenance requirements. It takes too much feed for that kind of cow. This goes hand in hand with milking ability. You can end up with big, heavy milking cows that can't, produce very well unless you use a lot of extra feed. You want something that can mature quicker. Big framed cattle won't work out on the range or in relatively rough conditions and won't work for a lot of my customers."

Have a target goal for frame size. If your cow herd's mature size is large enough already, don't buy bulls with high EPD's for growth. The bulls in a sale may range from plus 15 to plus 45 on yearling weight EPD for instance, and you may only need a plus 25. Judge the potential performance of a bull by your own needs. The important thing is not how plus or minus a bull is compared to breed average; pick a bull that when crossed with your cows will produce offspring on target for your conditions, market, and future cow herd. You don't want replacement heifers that grow too large to be efficient producers in your herd.

With EPD information, you can evaluate the performance of a bull's ancestors and get a feel for what you can expect from him. EPD's can tell you some things about a bull you can't see by looking at him, but you also need to evaluate him visually.

CONFORMATION AND STRUCTURAL SOUNDNESS -- No matter what records and performance data a bull has, there are still some things about him you can only judge by looking at him, including conformation and structural soundness. Breeding soundness and fertility are very important. Choose a masculine looking bull. Bulls should look masculine and cows should look feminine, for best fertility.

Cows should look like females, not steers. Swanson wants heifers that show femininity; a steer looking heifer is generally not as fertile, and has less fertile offspring. A steer headed, beefy type female is often not as good a mother or producer as the more feminine individual and the cow headed bull is rarely as good a producer as the more masculine bull.

Structural soundness of a bull is very important, especially feet and legs. A bull's conformation is crucial to his breeding soundness (affecting athletic ability and breeding function) and to his offspring; you want daughters that have good conformation and durability (able to travel and stay sound for a long productive life). You don't want conformation problems that might make a cow a cripple, or "old" and stove up before she gets to culling age.

Swanson looks for really sound feet. "Some bulls pass on bad feet. So when selecting a bull with daughters in mind, you want to make sure you don't perpetuate a problem."

A bull should be long, but not sway backed. A sway backed bull is not as strong and athletic as he should be, and may not hold up well. A sway-backed bull may also tend to be pot-bellied and sire daughters with this type of conformation. If you are selecting a bull to sire heifers, also be critical of his tail set. A little downward slope or level rump is preferable to a tipped up pelvis with high tail set. If a bull sires daughters with a tipped up pelvic area, they may have more calving problems than cows with a more normal or sloped down rump.

When the calf is born, he has to come up out of the uterus and into the birth canal, in an arc up over the pelvis. If the cow has a tipped up pelvis (high tail set), the feet of the calf tend to jam up under the backbone and tail head, making a more difficult birth and/or more pain for the cow. As a cow gets older and saggier, this problem is accentuated.

In looking at a cow's conformation, Nelson says, "I like a fairly level topline from hooks to pins and extra width in the pins when looking at them from behind. That goes along with a larger birth canal if the pins are wider. We're fussy in the hip area and also the topline, we want a good strong topline with no swayback. A cow needs some capacity but not look tanky or have too much gut. She should have a straight barrel something that would indicate that her steer calves would be high yielding without a lot of gut. If you can keep enough length in the cattle (we like cows with a little extra length), you get away from having too much gut." So a bull with length, good topline and smoothness (no “belly”) will tend to sire daughters with these characteristics.

Another facet of conformation is scrotal size and shape. Size is important to fertility; there is a correlation between scrotal circumference and sperm cell volume (and percent of normal sperm cells). Testicles too small often have less total sperm and more sperm abnormalities. There is also a strong genetic correlation between a bull's scrotal size and the fertility (as measured by earliness of puberty) of his daughters. A bull that has adequate or above average scrotal size as a yearling indicates that he matured quickly, and his daughters will also reach puberty early.

LOOK AT THE BULL'S MOTHER - One of the most important factors when selecting a bull to raise daughters is a close evaluation of his mother her milking ability, udder shape and teat size, general conformation, fertility, hardiness, disposition, longevity, mature size, and fleshing ability, and nutritional needs for optimum production. A cow might be excellent in several of these traits, but her genetics may still be of no value to your herd if she is deficient in even one of these categories so take a good look at the bull's mother and other female ancestors and their records.

One of the things Nelson checks on the female side of the pedigree is any carcass data that's available. "Some of this newer data needs to be included in your evaluation, to give you an idea what the cow side will contribute to her offspring. If there has been any carcass work done and it's positive, that's always a plus when selecting genetics. That's another reason to research the pedigree, to see as much of the bull's background as you can and be able to draw some conclusions. If you have the kind of cattle you like, with the characteristics you like, and they have the ability to produce good maternal AND good carcass characteristics – and it's in there for several generations, you can be pretty sure they will breed true and produce what you want."

The history of the bull's mother and female line are very revealing. Does the cow get big teats at calving time? Did she reach puberty at an early age and settle quickly? Has she had a calf every year, and does she calve easily? Does she have a manageable disposition? All too often the bull buyer only has information on the sire or a breeder is only interested in showing you male relatives and their records. You must have information on the female line as well; a bull's daughters will show those traits.

Swanson always looks at udders and teat length and size. "The bull's mother is important because his daughters will have udders like hers, they are fairly consistent. Bag structure and teats are generally passed from a bull to his daughters. I quit using a couple of bulls just because of that. One of those bulls -- I liked everything about him except that factor, but had to quit using him because his daughters had bad udders."

Nelson also feels strongly about the importance of good udders and proper size teats. "Some cows are good milkers but they don't have a balanced udder. Many don't have as much forequarter as rear quarter, for instance. A balanced udder is becoming more important to cattlemen. Years ago, no one paid much attention to that, but Swanson says disposition is also important. A bull may inherit a bad disposition from his mother. If he is flighty or wild, there's a good chance his daughters will be, too. Always take a look at the bull's mother, if you can, for she is the most important individual in his pedigree to critically judge. If you don't like her, you won't like her granddaughters. She will have more influence on your replacement heifers than any other single individual, since the female characteristics the bull passes to his daughters are predominantly those of his mother. If she is an outstanding cow, with traits you want in your herd, there's a good chance those traits will come through in her granddaughters. When buying a new herdsire, always check out his mama.

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